Camera settings

When you have found your spot and the sky is about to light up with northern lights there are several things you need to know about your gear in order to get amazing pictures. If you are a novice in the field, you should do some reading first on four things: aperture, shutter speed, ISO and white balance. Or, feel free to contact us by sending us an e-mail, and we will be more than happy to answer your questions.

The northern lights are tricky when it comes to photography. They are not a really strong source of light and they tend to be moving. Therefore, you need to have your camera settings right to get enough amount of the light on your sensor in the shortest time possible. And your focus needs to be right. In order to get this right it is best to use your camera in manual mode, and try to override all automatic settings. It takes time to get it right.

Aperture is a mechanism in your lens that controls how much light goes through the lens. It is measured in so called “f-stops”, aften referred to as f/1.4, f/8.0, f/11 etc. and these numers indicate how big portion of the “hole” in your lens is open. So, f/1.4 means that 71% of your lens is open and lets light pass. f/11 means that 9% of your lens is open. So the higher the numer, the more of your lens is “stopped down”, in photography terms, and less light travels through.

When photographing the aurora, you need to open your lens as much as possible in order to get as much light in as you can. An aperture between f/1.4 and f/4.0 is ideal. Stopping your lens more down, only means you have to keep your shutter open longer or increase your ISO, giving you blurry lights or overwhelming noise in your photo.

Shutter speed:
Shutter is the mechanism that opens way for light to your cameras sensor or film. For most occasions, when you are holding the camera in your hands, you are using a speed somewhere between 1/60 of a second or faster. When you go out to photograph the northern lights, you need to have the shutter open for a longer time than that.

Since the aurora is moving you have to be careful not to have your shutter open for too long. If you do, the lights become blurry and you lose the beautiful detail available in the lights. A shutter speed between 1 and 10 seconds is ideal. You might have to slow the shutter even more down, to 15 seconds or more, but then your risk just getting a kind of a green blob in in your photo.

You can control how senistive your camera sensor is to light by pushing up your camera ISO. Without going into great technical detail, we can say that by dialing in a higher ISO number on your camera, you will get more of the lights on your photo, but you also risk getting some noise, a kind of digital grain, on your photo.

You need to know the limitations of your camera when it comes to high ISO noise. In moderate lights, that are not extremely strong, ISO 800-3200 is quite common.

White balance:
Different kinds of light sources reflect different color tones. A white piece of paper that you put out in direct sunshine does not reflect the same “white” when you put it next to a candle or a tungsten light bulb. To deal with that you can adjust the white balance of your camera. When you are photographing the aurora, there can be several different light sources at work: light pollution from nearby cities, moonlight, the light from the aurora, snow on the ground reflecting moonlight etc. Therfore, we reccomend that you use automatic white balance setting on your camera. You can, if you are not happy with the outcome, change it in post processing.

Focusing is always tricky when you are out in the dark. The problem is that your automatic focusing mechanism on your camera needs to “see” to function correctly. But it can’t see in the dark, and therefore you need to tell it how to focus. So, again, you need to go manual on your camera. You can try to “trick” it into focusing on your foreground by lighting it up with your flashlight, but the safest way to do it is manually.

There are three ways possible to get it right. The first (and the safest) one is to turn the focus ring on your camera to infinity (∞) and then half a millimeter back. That way you are certain to get the sky in focus, along with the lights. Another one is using a Live View, if your camera has it. Then you turn it on, zoom in to 100% crop, and adjust the focus ring until your focus is nice and sharp. The third way is to find a light somewhere quite far, adjust the camera so that the light is right on your focus point in the viewfinder, and try to get your camera to autofocus on that light, or use Live view. If the light is far enough, this will work.

If you are photographing on an extremely big aperture (f/1.4 i.e.) your DOF is quite shallow, so a foreground that is very close to you might not be in sharp focus. But, every aperture has a hyperfocal distance, wich means that everything that is in a certain minimum distance from your camera will be in focus. For example, if I have a 24 mm lens, the aperture set on f/2.8, everything that is about 7 meters away from me, to infinity will be in focus. In order to learn more about hyperfocal distances, try some of the on-line depth of field calculators that are avilable. Just google: “DOF calculator.”

Sum up – Checklist:
How to photograph the Northern lights:

  • Get as much light as possible to the sensor.
  • Keep your aperture as open as you can (the lowest number available).
  • Try to use shutter speed 10 seconds or faster.
  • Use the ISO to increase the amount of light that your camera records with the right aperture and shutter speed.
  • Know the hyperfocal distance of your lens so that you can get sharp focus on your foreground.
  • Focus on the focus.
  • Remember that the cold eats up your battery power. Keep a fresh battery in your pocket, close to your body to keep it warm.
  • If it is very cold, avoid breathing on the viewfinder, it can freeze and then you can’t see through it any more.
  • While waiting for the lights to show up, keep the lens cap on, or tilt the camera down to avoid getting frost on your front glass.
  • Don’t use any filters. They only mean you get less light through your lens and you need a higher ISO or longer shutter speed.

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